Monday, June 15, 2009

Storie della Sicilia

Behind Closed Doors: Her Father's House and Other Stories of Sicily by Maria Messina (Feminist Press, CUNY, 2007) 196 pages

Maria Messina (1887-1944) is a revelation for me ... a Sicilian writer from the turn of the last century rediscovered by internationally renowned Racalmutese author Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989). A new friend and fellow Racalmutese from Hamilton, Calogero Milazzo, gave me this book of short stories a few months ago as a gift.

Despite her literary success in Italy and writing under the tutelage of the legendary Giovanni Verga, a master of the verisimo style, Messina seemed to live a stunted life for most of it under the thumb of strict parents, deprived of an education except what she could glean from her older brother whom she revered, and living in a small provincial town in rural Sicily for most of her life. But interestingly, this cloistered, claustrophobic life lead to a careful, sensitive cataloguing of the deprivations of women of her time.

More touchingly for me, the introduction written by the translator touches upon those cultural elements in Sicilian society from the late 19th c. and early 20th c. which are immediately recognizable, which explain to me the actions and thoughts of my parents raised in a small western Sicilian village in the 30s and 40s .... and trying to inculcate these values (sometimes futilely) into their children in the 60s and 70s.

The preoccupations of a "proper" Sicilian woman at the turn of the century were not so different than my mother's expectations for me seventy years later. When my father died I was compelled, not asked, to wear black for six months, as if we were in the old country. A badge of respect for the dead. There was a fierce and, I feel, unhealthy obsession in protecting the chastity of all young females in the family which meant rigidly observed rules of conduct and close watch when we ventured out. My mother seemed very concerned with preparing a trousseau for me before I married (which I did not want nor ever asked for) with linens and bedsheets and towels - all the accouterments of domesticity for when I married!

My parents, indeed all of my relations, were very fastidious in dress regardless of our station in life - it didn't matter if my parents' generation laboured in factories or steel mills or fixing roads - when we went out my mother's rule was strictly enforced: "always look your best" no matter where you were going or what you were doing. Now, it makes more sense, how was one to marry off one's daughter if she did not care for herself, make herself presentable, fashionably dressed and illustrating how well the family was doing?

I remember my hair elaborately curled with a little bun that sat on my head protected by a matching hair net (oh the abuse I took for that hairnet) and coming to school in bright yellow or pink dresses with frills and which sparkled with sequins along the fringes while other girls cavorted in levi jeans and beat up sneakers. How mortified my mother was when I wore my faded jeans with a single patch sewn on to them as a teenager ("You look like a hippie!" she shrieked). And how I loathe those colours now ...

Another explicit rule was that one was never to reveal one's troubles within the family for this was how those who wished you ill gained the upper hand. All of these social conventions feature in the stories here ...

The stories, written in the verismo style, touch on many issues rarely mentioned in Italian literature heretofore. The style is not elegant or particularly artful but should be seen for what it is: a punch in the solar plexus of Sicilian patriarchy merely by daring to utter the simplest of truths. In an effort to preserve la famiglia, Sicilian culture and the sanctity of the home, much was sacrificed by the women (and parents left behind) when the men emigrated.

There is a kind of despair in the plots which I recognize in the writing of the female writers of Southern Italy, not just in Sicily but it seems more pronounced in Sicilian writers. This is disheartening at times (there's a bleak similarity between the short stories) but completely understandable - in these small towns, within these narrowly prescribed worlds, the women had no choice but to comply or risk complete isolation from family and neighbors. And yet, I fear, we, as women, make a virtue of this sacrifice to convention and allegiance to conservative values which I have referred to in other blogs as the "Violetta Complex".

Yet Messina astounds, revealing a level of resentment and anger in her characters which percolates through some of the stories with the characters threatening to destroy themselves, or the family, rivals in love, virtually all familial ties. This, I feel, is revolutionary for a woman and writer of her era.

In "Grace", a widow with a child, who feels herself to be plain and unattractive, faces the unfaithfulness of an abusive lover, a shepherd who beats her, takes her meager earnings and deceives her. Grace lives in terror lest her man leave her for her beautiful neighbor Elena only to find that she has been deceived by the pious, plain housewife Basila.

"America, 1911" tells of the effects of mass emigration prompted by poverty from Sicily. I had not thought of this clearly before ... what of those left behind, the elderly parents? the wives? sometimes the children? The economic, social and emotional toll of emigration is recounted here. The hopes of those left behind dashed by La Merica, which is described alternately as a seductress and wormwood. A wife is left behind because her eyesight is poor, left on the dock, frightened and embittered as her husband sails away. His parents remain as well as they are elderly. The wife slowly loses her eyesight and her mind due to her despair.

Things fare as poorly for Nonna Lidda in "Grandmother Lidda" who loses both her son and then her grandson to La Merica and therefore loses the will to live.

Vanni almost loses hope of a bride when he returns to Sicily from America after two years to learn that his once intended is engaged to another but the dainty shoes (in "Le Scarpette") that he has bought and set aside for his future bride remain pristine ... awaiting some other woman that will eventually take her place.

The shabbily genteel lawyer Scialabba in "Ti-nesciu" must keep up appearances at all costs so that his daughter might marry and marry well so he takes her out each night for display in the piazza.

"Her Father's House" is the most poignant. A young woman watches her youth fade waiting for permission to marry that her sisters-in-law and family will not allow - mocking her for her desires for a home and husband of her own.

"Ciancianedda", a deaf mute beauty, leaves the sheltered life she leads with her father and brother to marry a handsome suitor only to have him stolen by a siren with a beautiful voice who sings to him each night. And in "Caterina's Loom", Caterina rejects a suitor whom her family has coaxed her to accept because of the way she feels she has been put on display - choosing to be alone rather than auctioned off like a prize hen.

Messina remains defiant - her life may have been circumscribed, her options limited as a woman but she was well aware of the injustices and her clear sighted vision could not be curbed or ignored.

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